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The War of Independence in West Clare by Rita Marrinan

The Rineen Ambush

Towards the middle of September, 1920, it was unanimously agreed at a meeting of the Fourth Battalion that an ambush of major importance should be in the area, in the very near future. The main purpose of this ambush would be to get revenge for the murder of Martin Devitt who was shot dead in an ambush at Crowe’s Bridge in February of that year. A secondary function was to get arms for the poorly-equipped volunteers in the area. There was very little difficulty deciding on a target because it was well know that a lorry full of Black and Tans left Ennistymon every Wednesday morning at eleven thirty and travelled to Miltown Malbay. It returned approximately four hours later. After further discussion it was decided that Dromin Hill, Rineen, which is five miles from Lahinch and three miles from Miltown Malbay, would be a suitable location. It was further decided that this should not be a “hit and run” affair but a fight to the end as it turned out to be on September 22nd.

Men from seven of the nine companies in the Battalion area took part. The companies in question were Ennistymon, Lahinch, Inagh, Moy, Glendine, Miltown Malbay and Letterkenny. Most of these, however, were unarmed because of the lack of ammunition. The entire lot of arms consisted of sixty rounds of 303 ammunition, eight rifles, two bombs, two revolvers and a varied assortment of sixteen shotguns. Most of these were without centre pieces and so the stocks and barrels were held together with pieces of cord. Many had faulty ejectors and were capable of firing only one shot. In fact, many of them were dangerous even for those who used them.

On the night of September 21st a meeting was held at Lehane’s house in [Cregg], Lahinch, which was Battalion Headquarters, to make final preparations. The night was calm and clear as the Battalion Staff and sections of the Lahinch and Ennistymon companies set out around midnight for the Church in Moy. Here they were joined by some of the local company and a few from Inagh. This party then set off towards Miltown Malbay, and at “Fior” Hogan’s in Ballyvaskin they were met by men from Letterkenny, Glendine and Miltown Malbay, and the entire lot marched across the fields towards Dromin Hill.

After a meal of corned beef, bread and stout, the senior officers held another meeting to determine the exact location, and to complete the necessary details. The original position, which was three hundred yards nearer to Lahinch, was discarded in favour of a newly selected site that had more to offer and which met with general approval. The hill is approximately four hundred feet high and this, coupled with the natural manner in which it stretched itself before easing off towards the railway at both ends, provided excellent opportunities for the scouts, when a vehicle could be seen approaching from either side, for a considerable distance in time to give ample warning of its approaches. There was good natural cover at one side of the road, but the other side had little cover in the sense that the retreat was cut off by the sea. It was deemed necessary to have two positions manned at this side of the road and Commandant O’Neill called for experienced men. These positions were filled on the one side by Lieutenant Anthony Malone and Captain Pako Kerin, and on the other by the Column Commander Steve Gallagher and Sean Burke – Lieutenant of the Lahinch Company.

“A boreen leading from the main road, which was parallel to the railways on to Honan’s house at the top of the hill, was the main line of attack. It had protective sod wall ditches, which provided natural cover. Branches from gorse and ferns were made use of to seal the entrance. Some of these were planted in a temporary fashion along the boreen walls, for extra cover, and in order that the attackers might not be seen either from passing trains or from the road."[24]

Plan of Rineen Ambush
Plan of Rineen Ambush

Having satisfied himself that all necessary precautions were taken, Comandant O’Neill summoned the men together at daybreak. In his address, he reminded them once again of the purpose of the ambush. “Soldiers of the Republic, today we are to avenge the death of “Maurteen”. Continuing he said, “I want you to fight today as soldiers of the Republic should fight and when this engagement is over, I want to feel proud of you”. The men then returned to their positions and waited for their target to arrive.[25]

As the lorry was on its way to Miltown around noon, a wrong signal was given by the scouts. Two cart loads of hay were on the road and the signal given indicated three lorries. The men were therefore ordered to hold fire and the lorry was allowed to pass uninterrupted. The men had to wait three hours for the return of the lorry. In the meantime, however, the men had been briefed when to open fire. When the Crossly tender [armoured vehicle] eventually returned to opening blast of fire, it was spontaneous and powerful enough to blow the entire lot to pieces. The two bombs were ineffective, as both overshot the target and landed in the field beyond, where craters were visible years later.

When the smoke cleared the driver and three others of the party of six were dead, and the tender had come to an abrupt halt. Two however, had jumped clear. One, carrying his rifle, jumped, as it were, into the arms of his attackers and as he was about to use his rifle he was shot dead. The men moved in to collect the booty which consisted of five rifles and one thousand pounds of ammunition. Sean Burke took the policeman’s bandalier which contained fifty rounds of 303 ammunition and joined his brother Tom, and Donal Lehane, who had given chase to the second escapee as he crossed the fields towards the sea. It was just then that three lorry loads of troops were seen coming to a halt and another thirty were approaching on bicycles. Strangely, but fortunately for the volunteers, the troops were more surprised than they were, and consequently they [the volunteers] had the advantage. Just as the men were about to celebrate their victory they had to enter the second phase of the fight which they had not bargained for. “For a few seconds” said Sean Burke, “my brain was in a whirl. The fearful thought crossed my mind that had they been there minutes earlier, and the tender two minutes later, there would have been five battalions instead of six in the mid-Clare Brigade. The fourth would have been annihilated."[26]

The extra rifles and ammunition was quickly distributed and the second phase of the fight began. Tom Burke and Donal Lehane were sorely missed as they had been completely cut off while chasing the escapee. Fortunately, however, they were not noticed as they made their escape towards the sea to Lehane’s house. For those remaining, the odds were desperate and it seemed that eleven men with rifles had no chance against such a force of armed men and the volunteers remembered their pledge of a “fight to the end”. The Crown Forces were fought from the railway and the sides, top and back of the hill, before a firm stand was made behind ditches and cocks of hay as the column fanned out. The fighting continued over three hours. By that time, most of the captured ammunition had been used, but not without results. When the British got to the top of the hill they began to use their machine guns, but by this time the I.R.A. were firmly entrenched, and were steadily picking them off. Shortly afterwards, Commandant Ignatius O’Neill and Micklo Curtin of the Moy company got wounded. A final effort was made by the British when four Tans broke loose in an attempt to make a capture, but they were all shot down. The I.R.A. had gained a victory and the seemingly impossible had been accomplished.

The I.R.A. immediately left the area carrying the wounded with them. Both were attended to by Doctor Michael Hillery at Moloney’s in Lackamore. Ignatius later recuperated near Kilfenora and received further attention from Doctor Pearson of Lisdoonvarna. Micklo Curtin was cared for in the Moy company area. Within a few weeks both were ready to offer their services once more.

On September 23rd, all national papers carried reports of the ambush and its aftermath. “Between thirty and forty civilians engaged in haymaking in the vicinity were arrested and conveyed to Ennistymon."[27] Meanwhile the 4.20 p.m. train from Ennis was stopped and passengers were searched by military and police and one man, named Scully – a milesman on the West Clare Railway – was arrested. All papers also carried the report that four policemen and one soldier had been killed and one was wounded, but none had definite reports of casualties on the side of the attackers. On the following Friday, the funerals of the police victims passed through Ennis on their way to the native places of the men. Early in the morning, police went through the town requiring the townspeople to close their premises during the passing of the funerals. Three were carried in one lorry, two in another and one in a motor car. All six coffins were draped in the Union Jack. No incidents occurred while they passed through the town.

Participants in the ambush:

John Joe Neylon, Micko Nestor, Ned Hynes and Jimmy Gallagher.

Paddy McGough, John Callinan, John Clune, John Donnellan, Jack Fitzgibbon, John Rynne, Martin Marrinan, James Meaney, Dan Callaghan and Martin Hehir.

Pake Lehane, Donal Lehane, John Burke, Tom Burke, Mickey Reynolds, Mikie O’Dwyer, Marty Hynes, Paddy Queally, Paddy Foley and Mickey Hayes.

Steve Gallagher, Seamus Hennessy, Joe Nagle, Pete Vaughan, Micklo Curtin and Tim O’Connell.

Anthony Malone, Pako Kerin, Dave Kennelly, Pat Frawley, Martin Frawley, Johnny Burke, Brian O’Loughlin and Dan McMahon.

Miltown Malbay
Ignatius O’Neill, Bobby O’Neill, Ned Lynch, John McMahon, Tommy Moroney, Joe D’Arcy, Michael O’Keeffe, John Fitzgerald, Thomas O’Connor and Jacko Hurley.

John Crawford, Anthony O’Brien, Mort O’Connor, John Murray and James Ryan.[28]

Policemen killed:

Constable Hodnett, Cork

Constable Harman, London

Constable Kell, Roscommon

Constable Maguire, Mayo

Constable Harte, Sligo

Sergeant Hynes, Athlone (wounded in ambush but died later)[29]

The Rineen Ambush

A relentless foe set out to show
that our spirit could be killed.
Many a town was burned down
and many a grave was filled.
Brave men died on a lone hillside
On mountains and valleys so green
Ere the stage was set, and the “Tans” were met
In the ambush at Rineen.

A by-road there did cause a scare,
From the ranks volunteered a few
Four rifles bold these men did hold
Their aims were good and true
Then the Column lay, so quiet that day
Not a movement e’re was seen
And stalwart men did rise again
In the ambush at Rineen.

As the Angelus bell o’er Miltown fell
The lorry passed on it’s route
Those men lay there in silent prayer
But none e’re thought to shoot
After hours delay, on that fateful day
In the stillness all severe,
It came back, and then did crack
The rifles of Rineen.

As aims were true the shots were few
And the fight was at an end
But a second fight was then in sight
As three lorries came round the bend
In a mood to kill, they faced the hill
To fall and sprawl they were seen
They’ll ne’er forget the man they met
In the ambush at Rineen.

The arms found were handed round
And the column spread out for the fray
As the British advanced they jumped and pranced
Their machine guns were brought into play.
In the marshy ground, new positions were found
And targets were easily seen
As Forces of the Crown, that day went down
In the ambush at Rineen.

Two wounded lay on bales of hay,
And the British charged the spot
Some “Tans” so brave found an early grave
As one by one they were shot
As their bodies lay still on the side of that Hill
The column withdrew from the scene
And long will be told of the brave and the bold,
In the ambush at Rineen.

This is a ballad composed locally after the ambush at Rineen, and in it the feeling of pride the local people had in the I.R.A. is very well portrayed. It was a well planned ambush that nearly failed when “three lorries came round the bend”. But, the fact that the men were so brave and quick to act, they had a decided victory. “And long will be told, of the brave and the bold, in the ambush at Rineen”. This line was written sixty two years ago, but the memory of “Rineen” is as alive today as it was then.


A Campaign to Disarm Crown Forces


Reprisals for and reaction to Rineen